Powell Isn't Pandering to Africa's Big Men

George B.N. Ayittey is an associate professor of economics at American University and president of the Free Africa Foundation

Hopes were riding high when Colin L. Powell, the first African American U.S. secretary of State, made his first official visit to Africa. One purpose of the trip was to erase the impression left by George W. Bush during the presidential campaign that Africa is of little strategic importance to the U.S. Powell accomplished that in Johannesburg, where he declared that the "futures [of the U.S. and Africa] are closely intertwined." But his four-nation tour left many African leaders disappointed. Instead of substantial financial aid, they got a lecture.

In South Africa, Powell condemned the 'totalitarian methods' of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and called upon him to hold a 'free and fair election.' In Kenya, the secretary of State said it was time for Africa's 'big men' to step down after decades in office, an obvious reference to Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi, who has been in power for nearly 23 years.

Africa's autocrats weren't pleased, naturally, and dismissed Powell's advice as "interference in the internal affairs of sovereign nations." They roundly criticized the $200 million promised by the Bush administration to fight AIDS globally as "woefully insufficient" and assailed the $14 million in compensation paid so far to the victims of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania as inadequate.

Yet, the fact that Africa's big men are complaining signifies a welcome shift in U.S.-Africa policy, which has in the past relied too heavily on making these leaders happy.

To their credit, former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright paid more attention to Africa than any previous U.S. administration. High-profile White House conferences with African ministers, trade missions to Africa and tours by senior government officials were staples of the policy. Albright toured the continent on several occasions. Former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and daughter Chelsea visited twice, and Clinton traveled there a second time last year. On many occasions, Clinton pledged to support African nations that were moving toward peace, democracy, human rights and free-market economies.

But his administration's proactive engagement achieved few results. Meanwhile, the continent's woes multiplied and worsened. Its economic growth rate averaged a paltry 4.3% during the 1990s, far from the 7% needed to reduce poverty. The list of African economic success stories shortened. Worse, democratization stalled. Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, The Republic of Congo (Brazzaville), Sierra Leone, Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Equatorial Guinea all imploded.

Clinton's Africa policy failed, for two reasons. One, the former president relied almost exclusively on African Americans in formulating policy. While African American leaders mean well for Africa, they analyze its problems differently. For example, Africans did not regard the appointment of the Rev. Jesse Jackson as special envoy to Africa as a step for freedom. When Jackson tried to defuse Nigeria's political crisis in 1993, the country's pro-democracy forces initially refused to meet with him because of his past support for the late Nigerian dictator Gen. Sani Abacha and other past despots.

Second, the Clinton administration seldom made a distinction between African leaders and the African people. It blithely--and wrongly--assumed that an African government that represents the people is also responsive to their needs. In truth, there are many "gangster states" in which Africa's big men use the machinery of government to plunder the state and enrich themselves, their cronies and tribesmen. For reasons of political correctness, the Clinton administration was reluctant to criticize these big men. To make matters worse, its Africa policy centered on them.

During his historic 1998 trip, Clinton hailed Laurent Kabila of Congo, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and Isais Afwerki of Eritrea as a "new generation of African leaders." He sought to develop warm, cozy relationships with them. Barely two months after Clinton's return to the U.S., however, the African leaders were fighting each other in the Congo conflict and the Ethiopian-Eritrea war.

Powell's willingness to take on Africa's big men is a refreshing and much needed shift from the ersatz chumminess of the Clinton era. But it is not enough to ask Africa's despots to step down or hold free and fair elections. Moi and Mugabe have been in power for more than 20 years because they control the military, the electoral commission, the media, the judiciary, the civil service, etc. The Clinton administration did not sufficiently recognize the need for independent institutions in African states, choosing instead to misplace its faith in the rhetoric of Africa's big men.

Fortunately for the Bush administration, African leaders are finally getting serious about tackling the continent's woes. They are dissolving the Organization for African Unity, which couldn't even define 'democracy,' and will replace it with the African Union. After realizing the futility of blaming others for their problems, Africa's finance and planning ministers met in Algiers last month to adopt an African recovery program.

The next move is for the Bush administration to depoliticize and de-racialize Africa policy. The problems Africa faces have little to do with the slave trade, colonialism or racism. Rather, bad leadership and bad governance are to blame. Cut civil institutions loose from the clutches of the despots, and the African people will finish the job of transforming their societies.

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